Tarred Healing, a photo exhibition by the Durham photographer Cornell Watson about Black healing and Black spaces in and around UNC’s campus, was originally supposed to be on view at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at UNC-Chapel Hill in February—a culmination of Watson’s artist residency, at the center.
There had already been building tension between Watson and the Stone Center over which photographs could be included in the exhibit, when The Washington Post published work from the exhibition, a week before the Stone Center exhibit was scheduled to open. Alleging that Watson had broken his exclusivity contract, Stone Center director Joseph Jordan canceled the exhibition entirely. (Watson says he did not violate any agreements.)
In the original exhibit, Jordan had wanted to drop three photos, which depict students demonstrating on campus about the Board of Trustees’ handling of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure decision. The NAACP paid for these three photos to be printed and included in a new exhibit, this one put on by the Chapel Hill Public Library. On April 30, Tarred Healing opened.
Photographers document and share the vantage point from which they bear witness. Watson wanted to tell part of this story through the lens of Black students; following along with them on campus led him to their demonstrations. As the exhibit celebrates two weeks of being open, the INDY Week spoke with Watson about the photo series being on display as originally envisioned and centering the Chapel Hill community.
INDY WEEK: What image do you feel most connected to?
WATSON: There are two that I’m the most connected to. One is definitely the Rogers-Eubanks photo. The other one is the photo of the Strayhorn family. It really just makes you think about all that we’ve gone through, especially them. The Strayhorn family came to Carrboro after they were emancipated from slavery. And at the time—if you really think about Carrboro and how violent it was during Reconstruction and Jim Crow—it’s almost like winning the lottery to be able to still own land and own a home, coming out of that era. I really have a lot of value around family because I came from a big family. Family is how we survive—and that could be talking about family that’s not necessarily related in a blood way, but family, in general, is how we as Black people survive.
And then with the Rogers-Eubanks [photo], I feel very connected to that in some way because it’s our story. We always rise up above whatever that situation is and for them, they literally rose above a trash situation.
What was your internal dialogue when you were told some photos wouldn’t be displayed by the UNC Stone Center?
I followed these students for a reason. They threaded the story really well. The story that I was trying to tell as it related to the Unsung Founders Memorial and James Cates [a Black man who was stabbed to death by white supremacists on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus on 1970] and some of these other bigger issues that are preventing Black healing—why wouldn’t this be a part of the story? When you see those students’ demonstration photos juxtaposed to the stories that they were talking about, it’s really hard to deny why they don’t fit into the story.
I was in the room with these students and saw what was happening and what they were talking about. I saw the connection to everything else. Even with the illustration of the Unsung Founders Memorial—when you look at that, and see how the fingers at the bottom [of the memorial] are really pushing up despite all this weight on them, and then you look at the Black students and how they’re still pushing through even despite all this weight of white supremacy from the Board of Trustees—there are a lot of similarities. If you were to put this image [Clayton Somers looking at the camera] on top of that image [demonstrators holding signs], it would look just like the Unsung Founders Memorial image.
What did you take away from your residency with UNC?
Trust your gut. I started the residency trying to tap into the feelings, the energy of the university from the Black student perspective. That led me to follow them to their demonstrations, and then that led me to hearing all their concerns about all the other places that I was supposed to interrogate and look at through the residency.
We all know the story about what happened with the photo series, and I was really convicted about those student demonstrations being a part of this photo story. When you have like, that type of power coming at you, they try to make you believe that it doesn’t belong in your story.
What do you want the audience to walk away with?
This is very much centered around the Black community of Chapel Hill. These are their stories. Most important, I want them to feel seen and feel like their stories are heard. I hope the broader community feels moved to do something. We have come a long way, but there’s still so much work left to be done. As you can see through the photos, there’s no memorialization for James Cates. There’s still a lack of diversity on the Board of Trustees. The Strayhorn home in Carrboro has lots of work that needs to be done. The plaque over at the Rizzo Center doesn’t even acknowledge the enslaved people that are buried out there and the unmarked graves.
I hope people feel moved to do something. That could be that they donate to help restore the Strayhorn family home, which is part of the historical homes in Carrboro. People vote to ensure that we have a more diverse Board of Trustees that’s representative of the broader community and can make decisions to influence some of these other things. I hope people feel moved to go visit the center at Rogers-Eubanks and see all the work that they’ve done and see how close the landfill is to their community.
But most importantly, my hope is that Black Chapel Hill can feel a sense of pride. The name of the series is called Tarred Healing and I think a huge part of the healing process is acknowledging our stories, even the painful stories. I hope this moves that healing process in the right direction.
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